The Gift of Julia

Today is Julia Child’s 100th birthday.  Like many other chefs around the world I would like to share one of my favorite Julia memories.  The following happened in 2009 while I was the executive chef at Mars Hill Cafe.

With the Oscar buzz for Julie & Julia, the nation is savoring the gem that was Julia Child. Julia was one of the original cheflebrities and her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking changed the way Americans eat forever. Her bigger than life persona inspired a generation of home cooks to attempt classic French dishes like Coq au Vin and Coquilles Saint-Jacques.

The French Chef CookbookRecently a regular customer to the café presented me with the gift of a first edition copy of Julia Child’s The French Chef Cookbook. The book was published in 1968 as a companion to her long-running TV show, The French Chef. The book had belonged to the customer’s mother who passed away in 2007. I would like to share with you the note she signed inside the book. I am only including first names so as to protect my benefactor’s anonymity.

Dear Stuart,
This book belonged to my mother Mary. When I discovered it I thought of you. The tasty dishes you prepare for Mars Hill Café are wonderful and delightful to the taste buds. It is my hope that this book of treasured recipes enhances your career and aids your dream of becoming a top rated TV chef.

Bon appetite!

The book now occupies a prominent place in my living room. It is a treasure I will keep the rest of my life. Or at least until my niece graduates from culinary school. That gives me about 15 years to enjoy it.

Culinary Secret: Balance

With all of the spices, herbs and other sundry ingredients at our disposal these days it is easy to get wrapped up in the pomp while forgetting about the circumstance.  It is so tempting to add an entire day of Food Network into one meal.  But it should not take longer to say a dish than it takes to make it.

Balance and Harmony: Asian FoodThese ingredients and techniques are not something you want to use in every single meal.  The pursuit of a truly great meal, or life for that matter, is balance.  This philosophy is practiced with great skill by chefs in Asia and France.

Just because you have a few tricks in your bag doesn’t mean you should perform them all.  Some things simply do not need embellishment.  I’ll try to give a few examples.

At my last chef post there was one recipe, chicken salad, on the menu that I was told I could not tinker with.  If you are doing a sweet application to a savory dish it is important not to lose the savory aspect of it.  This chicken salad was sweeter than most of our desserts.  It was putrid.  A cup of sugar to every pound of chicken.  The other ingredients were mayo, cinnamon, red delicious apples, celery and pecans.  All sweet or neutral flavors.  To make matters worse the chicken was not seasoned so there wasn’t even salt and pepper to counter all of the sweetness.  There was no balance.  To this day it is the worst dish I have ever served on a menu.

When doing a sweet/savory dish you need to add heat or acidity to remind the palate this is a savory dish.  Cayenne pepper or a touch of Tabasco would have made that chicken salad better.  Asian and Caribbean chefs do sweet/savory well because of their judicious use of chilies and/or acids (whether from citrus or vinegar): sweet and sour, sweet and hot.

Balance is important in textures as well.  A well balanced recipe will have two or more contrasting textures – crispy and tender, crunchy and soft.  Just a touch of resistance that gives way to something gooey is charming.

Another place to strive for balance is in the menu as a whole.  Do you have an entrée that is technically challenging?  Then make sure your other courses are simple to execute.  Not only will it make things better for the cook but also for the diner.

At my last post I made hummus from scratch.  My recipe was quite complex containing I believe 17 ingredients and none of them the traditional Tahini.  Everyone said it was the best hummus in the city. I didn’t use that many ingredients because I was trying to impress anyone.  I did it because every hummus I have ever tasted was lacking something.  They seemed to always feature one of three flavors – garlic, cilantro or cumin.  Well I want all three of them and in abundance.

Conversely my scratch made salsa was very simple; six ingredients.  Again our customers thought it was the best in town.  The main thing to remember is that if you start with quality ingredients then you do not need a lot of flashy stuff; a little bit will do.

If there is one thing I can give someone new to cooking it is the lesson of balance.

ICA: Flay vs. Kinch

East versus West tonight as California’s celebrated Chef David Kinch enters Kitchen Stadium to match spatulas with Iron Chef Bobby Flay.  The judges for this battle of culinary wits are James Oseland (editor-in-chief of Saveur magazine), Cady Huffman (actress) and Lee Jones (sustainable farming guru).  Of course Alton Brown will be manning his post as MC.

David KinchNorthern California is a Mecca of great restaurants and Kinch’s Manresa Restaurant is one example why.  Featuring the flavors of the Basque Region mixed with the bounty of America, Manresa Restaurant has been a favorite among foodies since it first opened it doors.  A devotee to the local/sustainable movement, Chef Manresa uses produce grown exclusively for him by Cynthia Sandberg at her Love Apple Farm and is harvested only the day it is intended for use.

Kinch is a 1981 graduate of Johnson and Wales Culinary Academy in Rhode Island.  After graduation he took his knives to New York City were he worked at Hotel Parker Meridian and soon found himself the executive chef at La Petite Ferme specializing in French country fare.  That lead him to Beaune, France to learn from Marc Chevillot at the Hotel de la Poste.  Kinch’s travels were not over as he returned to New York to work at the Quilted Giraffe before heading on to Fukuoka Japan, San Francisco, Wertheim, Germany, Vezeley, France, San Sebastian, Spain and finally back to Northern California.

Kinch’s Basque recipes (the product of both French and Spanish influence) should prove a prime match-up for the Iron Chef who is a graduate of the first class of the French Culinary Institute and who’s Spanish restaurant Bolo was the first celebrated Spanish restaurant in the US.  With a sustainable farmer on the judges’ table and a sustainable farming advocate as the challenger, is it any wonder the Secret Ingredient was a vegetable?

Battle: Cabbage airs just after the season three premiere of Ultimate Recipe Showdown with host Guy Fieri.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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